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Associated Press, Published March 04 2010

Minnesota school threat rumors spread quickly through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - It's like an updated version of the game "telephone" - rumors circulate about possible school violence on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, forcing school officials to investigate and react.

In Minnesota, online rumors that a shooting would occur at a pep fest last month caused the principal of Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights to cancel the event and order extra police. Police and school administrators later said the threats were unfounded.

In Farmington, the high school principal planned to meet Thursday with parents after rumors spread on Facebook last week about a potential school shooting. Police said those threats also were unfounded.

"I don't think that these young people realized the snowball effect of what poorly thought-out comments would make - and what rumors would come from them," Farmington High School Principal Ben Kusch told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

New technology means teens are feeding gossip into schools and communities faster than ever with text messages, according to Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance in Washington.

"It's the old game of 'telephone,' " Kaiser told the Pioneer Press. "What's not true is what gets spread around. People take sides. They get angry and things start to get out of hand."

Kusch said the rumors started at Farmington High on Feb. 18 after two unrelated fights on school grounds. After school that day, the rumor mill started on Facebook, he said. A student told administrators about a post on the site that said, "Something bad is going to happen."

Kusch said the school investigates all threats, especially after school fights. After rumors circulated that a school shooting was planned for Feb. 26, police added extra officers that week to patrol the school as a precaution.

The principal said the rumors of violence were unsubstantiated, but "we take everything like that seriously."

In Simley, rumors that a shooting would occur Feb. 5 during a pep fest spread online after a fight happened the week before, Principal Gerald Sakala wrote to parents.

After the fight, Sakala said, "Rumors circulated regarding retaliation." He said the rumored threats - that "something big was going to happen" involving a gun at the pep fest - continued the following week through Facebook and text messages.

"Social media allows kids to talk to each other, but it also has negative consequences - which is the spreading of unfounded rumors - and that causes difficulties, obviously, for school personnel," Sakala said Wednesday.

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